Former Scotland and Lions coach Jim Telfer has led tributes to a fellow rugby thinker and ex-teaching colleague whom he described as “ahead of his time”.
Alastair Cuthbertson, who has died aged 86, was the brains behind making Portobello High School one of the foremost rugby establishments during the 1980s while his mentoring of the former pupil club saw them rise from district league status to stand just one win away from a place in the top flight.
“Alastair probably spent more time thinking about rugby coaching than about his art teaching,” recalled Telfer, who taught in the school’s science department for a spell.
With Cuthbertson’s forte being art, many believe that is where his renowned creative tactics stemmed from.
Added Telfer: “Alastair was a great advocate of 15-man rugby, who produced some very good players and some very good teams. He was prepared to spend hours preparing for a Saturday game and whenever you went into his classroom the pupils always seemed to be doing some work on their own! He was a real rugby man, though. In fact, rugby was all he talked about!
“In the mid-1970s, state school rugby was going well and at Portobello High there were 2200 pupils so he had players to pick from.
“Nevertheless, a lot of the boys who went on to do well in rugby – and Portobello had a string of schoolboy internationalists – had Alastair to thank. We could do with more teachers like him assisting school sport.
“Alastair wasn’t a bolshie bloke by any means, but because he had his own ideas possibly he rubbed authority up the wrong way. I felt he could have given a lot more to Edinburgh District and the SRU, but he wasn’t asked.”
Cuthbertson’s penchant for creating moves included a variety of kick-offs and one of his encounters with Telfer in the Portobello staff room is the stuff of rugby folklore.
“It’s true that it was a standing joke between us regarding Alastair’s kick-off routines. He would show me his latest move and I’d say ‘I only want my team to kick off once’. In fact, teams are bound to kick off more than once in a game so Alastair was ahead of his time!” said Telfer.
Graham Ireland was a scrum half in the Portobello High team which went through season 1981-82 with a single defeat – by Edinburgh Academy. He recalled: “Off the pitch, Alastair’s achievement was raising the school fixture list so that we played, and beat, all the top teams with the exception of Edinburgh Academy. In organising the team he armed me with a playbook of moves based on American Football. He was a master of trying to work out ways of deceiving the opposition so they would end up in a different part of the pitch to where we would carry the ball.
“I was not so much a scrum half as a quarterback with dozens of moves to call.
“One of Alastair’s specialities was kick-offs and my role including lining-up as if to start the game but actually act as a decoy; instructions included having a quiet word with the ref to let him know we were planning to play in the opposite direction to the one I was facing.”
Cuthbertson’s signature move was code-named Red Dog, as illustrated by Iain Goodall, former Portobello player and president who served as SRU referee supervisor. “Red Dog involved a tap pass being given to a pivot who then passed to one of four players standing with their back to the opposition,” said Goodall. “One of these would peel off confusing the other team with two support runners.
“In total, 14 players would be involved in that single move. Alastair was one of the most innovative coaches I have ever known and I think this might have been to do with his artistic background making him especially creative. Had Cubby been Scotland backs coach, we would have seen a lot of games featuring innovative and exciting rugby.”
As it was Cuthbertson devoted his rugby career to club level, assisting Edinburgh Wanderers, Heriot’s and Lismore as well as Portobello.
A funeral service will be held tomorrow at Mortonhall Crematorium at 2pm.